Interview: Emperor X

LA based singer-songwriter/noise pop artist C.R. Matheny has been prolifically writing songs as Emperor X for over ten years. During that time he has received attention from countless blogs and periodicals including NPR and Pitchfork, as well as shared stages with Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, The Hold Steady, Nada Surf and Sebadoh.

Currently amidst a Fall tour in support of his upcoming album Western Teleport, due out October 4th on Bar/None Records, Matheny took some time to answer a few questions about his current projects.

dA: Over the past four years, you’ve challenged your listeners to scavenge for physical copies of your music via your geocaching art project, The Blythe Archives. How has your experience been with this project so far? Will the lost/damaged albums ever surface in another form?

C.R. Matheny: That material’s gone, but I’m doing a second round of cache burial connected to a new record I have coming out on October 4th, and this will be significantly more extensive in geographic coverage. Check out later today to get an idea. There will be 41 buried caches, plus two free downloads for each track. And, the first three people who find a cache win a free E.X show wherever they want next year. So yeah…still doing that. 🙂

dA: Besides the Blythe Archives, what have you been up to?

CRM: I was working as web coder for awhile, still writing music and playing shows every now and then but definitely in a bit of a lull phase. I met some really great people at my job, great enough to make me sad that I wasn’t a reliable web coder for them, that it wasn’t what I was best at doing. Knowing them and seeing how skilled they were at what they did pushed me back into full music mode eventually, and I found myself at SxSW in March, playing a show for a handful of people and back to the tour-record-crash-tour-crash-record-tour-tour-record-tour-crash-tour grind. One of the people in attendance worked at Bar/None Records, a venerable indie label from the ’90s who put out a lot of great records by Yo La Tengo, Of Montreal, They Might Be Giants, stuff like that. They’re having a resurgence right now, and to make a long story short they wanted me involved. So that has completely changed my life.

dA: In a past interview, you mentioned you were going to school for music composition. Do you feel your music has changed or developed as a result? Has it had any effect on your approach to writing?

CRM: I went to CUNY-Brooklyn College for composition in 2007 and 2008. I never graduated (I did fine in the coursework, I just ran out of money and momentum), but going to school for music definitely changed me. On the strictly musical side, I have a much deeper well of influences to draw from now. 20th century post/neo-tonal stuff — whole tone embracing Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel and minimalism like Reich and Glass and neo-sacred stuff like Arvo Part — and getting to know formal contrapuntal composition more thoroughly by studying the old standby baroque/classical reference points, especially Bach and Mozart, and getting floored by the absurd over-reaching power of the Romantics like Wagner and Brahms and Mahler, and the German lieder tradition in the way Schubert engaged it…that all hit me really hard, and walling off a good year or so of my life to make space to engage with that tradition was a very good decision.

But I think the most significant effect music school had on my music was aesthetics. I took two classes in the philosophy of music, one in particular taught by the excellent experimental composer/guitarist/songwriter David Grubbs, focusing on John Cage. I did not like everything Cage said or did; at root he’s a mystic and I’m not and we have very different ideas about what the correct intention of the artist ought to be. But he did say many true and profound things about the process of making music that will never leave me. But most importantly that class and another focusing on the ontological philosophy of music gave me the tools I needed to create my own philosophy of creation, my own reason for making music, my own aesthetic, and to chisel it out deliberately rather than approaching it sideways and blindly as I’d been doing for years previously. This was the time in which I was writing _The Blythe Archives_ material and beginning to bury tapes, and I think there’s a clear delineation between the work I was doing before and the work I was doing after this record.

dA: In the past you’ve listed Sebadoh and Pavement as having influence on your sound. What bands in recent years have inspired or influenced you in some manner?

CRM: Oh man, so many. The _Rise Above_ record that Dirty Projectors put out in 2008 was hugely important to me. Diplo, especially his _Major Lazer_ project, had a big fun impact on me over the past few years. The Home Tapes label has been putting out rad stuff, especially this recent release called _Harbors_ by the All Tiny Creatures project. My friend Wayne let me steal all the music on his hard drive and I found a huge stash of Brazilian favela hip hop stuff that makes me glad I’m alive. Lots of stuff going on in Los Angeles right now is hugely inspirational — Baths, Body Parts, Lucky Dragons, Baseck, the whole Low End Theory thing, Kool Skull, Fort Wife, Jon Barba, they’ve all activated me in a very alive kind of way. I’ve also been looking deeper into the past, getting very stoked on Springsteen’s _Nebraska_ album and Fleetwood Mac’s _Tusk_ and the whole pre-1992 Billy Joel catalog and Everything But The Girl and Prefab Sprout and more recently XTC.

dA: Your interest in public transportation has surfaced as the subject of many of your songs. Having spoken with you recently, I’ve learned you also have an interest in economics. When can we expect to hear song about Friedman, Keynes, and the recent recession?

CRM: To paraphrase an ad campaign by NYC’s Consolidated Edison power copany: ON IT! In particular, a song on a record I’ll probably put out next year is called “In Defense of Creole Semtex” and there’s a lot of energy economics wrapped up in that one. I also hope to at some point in the next few months begin investigating applying concepts from physical science like entropy/ectropy to a theoretical universal unit of real value, like an SI unit for worth or for “quality” as Pirsig might mystically call it, which is lacking and which I think would put some clarity into this whole socialism/capitalism false dichotomy we’ve got ourselves tangled up in. If I’m thinking about a concept or an event, it tends to come out in my music, though I usually hang the concepts on concrete objects. I try to avoid songs with long descriptions of abstract concepts, like academic singspiel. I often fail, but hey, trying’s something. Anyway, the short answer to that question is: probably very soon.

dA: One of the weirdest shows I’ve ever been to was the one you played at Bacchus in November. In addition to the whole night having a strange vibe, I never actually got to see you play because my evening ended promptly after I was sprayed by a fire extinguisher during Blackbird Blackbird’s set. What would you call the weirdest show you’ve either played or attended?

CRM: That show was insane. The place was crawling with drunk/high/whatever 20somethings, the air was saturated in fire extinguisher haze, and it felt like the end of the world was about to start, right there. My live sets are often quiet and calm, either atmospheric or traditional singer/songwriter/wussy, and if I tried to play in the midst of the chaos it would have been at best an awkward joke, so I set up in one of the small side rooms, shouted at the top of my lungs (with the help of the mighty bearded Cameron Rath who was prancing around in his underwear and was very difficult to ignore) informing people that I was playing a quiet show and that if they wanted to hear it they could come in the side room. I let a few people file in and closed the door, and it was like a little island of sanity. It was a really, really great night. I think I was drunk on Four Loko.

dA: What can show-goers expect from your upcoming tour?

CRM: The show on the 24th will just be me and a guitar and some tape decks and delay pedals, maybe a friend or two helping me out, mostly acoustic. The tour coming up in October will be more full band-y. I have a great couple of guys coming with me, stellar musicians, and we’ll be adding percussion and extra strings, but my live sets will always have the emergency busker vibe, I hope, so we’ll have a turbo acoustic style setup, to use a term coined by Sebadoh a few years ago.

Don’t miss Emperor X this Saturday at the dA:

The dA Concert Series Presents:

Emperor X
Halloween Swim Team
Voice on Tape
Stay Cool Forever
Tall Tales and the Silver Lining

Saturday, September 24th
5:00 pm / All-Ages / $5
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